Wanted by pensioner – medium-sized mixed breed dog m/f for company and lots of country walks. Free to good home assured. Evening Echo, July 2018
We arrange to meet on the north side of Cork city. He is wearing colourful shorts and a Michael Jackson T-shirt. I reckon he was in his 60s, but he could be older. He is a tall man who points to a hearing aid in one ear, which means I have to stand on his right-hand side so he can hear me properly.
Charlie is one of several people I have met for a series of reports on the human stories behind small ads – ads I have found in The Echo, Done Deal, Ireland’s Own and other places.
Before we meet, he gives me the name of his estate, and because I arrive early, I walk around wondering which house is his. One small bungalow with flowers growing from all angles outside and a bowl for a dog in the porch (bit of a giveaway) seems a fairly strong possibility.
He prefers to talk in my parked car outside his estate, although he struggles to get into it because of some ulcers on his leg that have just been dressed.
Charlie has had dogs since he was 20, so for about half a century he’s had a canine companion. “The first dog I adopted was out in Africa, in the Congo. I was in the army at the time and I was 18,” he tells me.
When I ask which had been his favourite dog, his voice begins to crack with emotion and his eyes redden. He looks away from me out of the window, not wanting me to see him upset. “I think . . . the fella that died recently,” he says. “He was a good-sized dog, like an Alsatian face. I had him 12 years and he got leukaemia two years ago and in two months he was gone.”
Was that loss hard to get over? “’Twas, yeah. I was in hospital at the time, because something went wrong with my heart. And I was in there a few days and the dog was on his last legs – he only got really bad the final week. They wouldn’t leave me out of hospital. There were a few neighbours who looked after things. He died by the front door inside and he was dead when I came back.”
You didn’t get to say goodbye?
“You’re making me all emotional now,” he says, fighting back the tears. “I took him down the road on a Sunday and I buried him near the fire station. I dug a hole for him down there.”
Did you say a prayer? I ask.
“No, I drank a bottle of wine though. I’m not religious at all. I’m after paying for a pre-funeral cremation for myself whenever I go. I told them to take the cross off the coffin and there’d be no priest involved.”
In any interview, there are signposts to someone’s past, departure points through which if someone is open enough, you can enter. This was an obvious one. I ask Charlie some more about this, because I assume he was raised a Catholic, so why the deliberate efforts to ensure that his funeral will have no religious element?
“I have three sisters,” he tells me. “Our mother was in a laundry, or county home as it was known then. And she was there till the day she died. And then I was sent to a convent in Cappoquin, and then when I was eight or nine I was sent to St Joseph’s Industrial School. That was one of the most notorious ones. I wasn’t assaulted. Well, physically, I was, but nothing else.”
Charlie’s mother remained a distant figure throughout his life.
“We never knew her,” he tells me. “She was in a home all her life and was institutionalised. You couldn’t really talk to her. I wanted to find out who my father was. On the birth certs there is no father’s name and for my three sisters, it’s the same.”
He doesn’t know much about his family, except that they seemed to travel around a lot and never really had a place to call home. He thinks his grandfather was killed during the second World War, and his grandmother may also have spent time in a county home.
On several occasions during his childhood he was taken to see his mother, or she would come and see him, accompanied by his grandmother. These were difficult and often uncomfortable visits.
“We would be brought into a room in the convent,” he says. “They would bring her down and we could talk to her for a while. She wouldn’t say anything. Again, I would be trying to ask her questions about the history of the family and she wouldn’t say a word. My mother was described as a domestic on my birth cert.
“Of course, I always wanted to know who fathered the four children, because I do know we weren’t all the same father. I was seven years old before the next child was born. And then there was another four to five years till the third one and the same with the final one. It couldn’t be the same person, as she was in a home all that time and had very little freedom, so we don’t know who it was. I’m illiterate as regards computers so there isn’t much I can do.”
When his mother died in the 1980s, the funeral was held on a Sunday and Charlie didn’t attend. He says he was only told she’d died the day before her funeral and it was midwinter and the roads were bad, but some of his sisters went as they were living near her. She was still living in the institution when she died, and the religious order made all the arrangements for the funeral. He doesn’t visit the grave regularly.
“Nobody ever showed me any affection,” Charlie says, thinking back on his childhood. “I find I am not able to do that myself either. I am too embarrassed. That’s the way I was brought up. I keep to myself mostly.”
Looking back, he says he has had a tough life, but he’s not a person to talk about his feelings or emotions to anyone. He keeps all that bottled up inside.
Charlie takes half a dozen old photos out of his pocket. I am expecting them to be pictures of his family maybe or his early years in the army. Instead, he wants to show me photos of his dogs through the years, each of them with their own personality.
It’s easy to see how dogs became close companions for Charlie, who grew up not knowing who his father was, and not being able to communicate with an institutionalised mother.
He lives now in a small council house and has been living there for well over a decade. It has a small garden out the back, and the dogs have been happy there. At various times over the years he has had up to five dogs. Now he is left with just one, a small terrier that a woman on the south side of the city gave him after she saw his advertisement. It’s four years old, and he deliberately looked for a dog that age.
“I kept the ad in because I was going to get another one for company for this fellow, but I’m not so sure now. I would always have them as puppies. But I am 74 now; there’s a possibility I could die first, before the dogs. That’s why I got a four-year-old and not a pup. I wouldn’t want to die before them. Most of them couldn’t be rehomed. They’re one-man dogs.”
I help Charlie out of the car, and he unwinds his long legs on to the footpath, picks up his plastic bag full of groceries and walks to his little cottage within a stone’s throw of the military barracks. It turns out that it was the one with the dog bowl outside that I’d spotted earlier. He lives there, alone, but content.
He waves as a neighbour stops him at his doorway for a chat. He seems well placed in the area. The man who had had no place to call home for much of his life is now part of a community, has a front door key and is taken care of.
This community is as much his family as his sisters, his institutionalised mother and the father he’d never known. To the right of his doorway on the wall of his home is a sign with the name of the house. The writing is a little faded and hard to read. The light is declining so I get closer to it and smile as I make out the words.
It reads: Shangri-La.
An earthly paradise indeed.
This is an edited extract from The Personals – The Human Stories Behind the Small Ads, published by HarperCollins. Brian O’Connell is reading on Monday, October 7th at the Dublin Festival of History; in Waterstones Cork as part of Irish Book Week on October 31st; at Dingle Literary Festival on November 23rd, and at Ennis Book Festival on March 6th